Fantastic and Realistic Blend Well in ‘What It Means’

A few years ago, I was mesmerized by a story from LeVar Burton Reads, “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. It wasn’t just LeVar Burton’s performance, though that’s enough to make any writing magical (if you’re a writer in a rut, try imagining him narrating your prose as you go—it works wonders). The story itself was brilliant and lingered with me for long after he read the ending credits.

Basically Reading Rainbow for adults and it’s honestly the best.

A few months later, I saw the collection, also called What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, on NPR’s Book Concierge list. I am a sucker for Levar Burton Reads. I am a sucker for NPR’s Book Concierge. And this story collection didn’t disappoint.

Arimah’s imagery is stunning throughout. A father does not merely take care of his growing daughter on his own—no. “They survived the crime scene of the girl’s first period, where she proved to be as heavy a bleeder as she was a sleeper, the red seeping all the way through to the other side of the mattress. They survived the girl discovering this would happen every month” (“Light”). And an obviously mismatched man and woman do not begin to fall in love, but “He laughed, thinking she was joking, and his misunderstanding loosened her tongue” (“Glory”). It isn’t poetry in the usual way people talk about prose being poetic. It is far too sensible to be that. In lacking that sort of lushness to decorate life, it instead feels like it is woven into the very fabric of the world Arimah creates.

She shows considerable prowess in plotting, too. From the titular story that drew me to this book, which describes how bureaucracy controls and muddles a miracle mathematical formula that allows people to heal sadness or fly, I expected a sense of otherworldliness to be a common thread throughout. Although there are several stories that delve into the magical—a world in which women build themselves children out of various materials, from mud to sticks to porcelain to human hair, and rely on motherly magic to make them into real babies; the heartbreak that follows a prolonged feud between gods and goddesses—most of the stories are rooted in a reality that looks very much like our own. They still carry with them a glimmer of the fantastic but their strength lies in how Arimah pulls that glimmer from the mundane of human failings.

And she knows how to pace a short story. I found myself rereading several of them after a twist at the end changed my whole understanding of the story thus far. “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky” is what brought me to the collection but after reading the whole thing, I think “Windfall,” a story about a mother and daughter surviving on a purposeful string of personal injury claims, might be my new favorite. The hair one, though (“Who Will Greet You At Home”), will also linger with me for a long, long time (shudder).

A wordy title, but it earns it.

Story collections are always a bit harder to review than novels in some ways. I can’t give a trite little summary. There is no overarching plot to consider, no long-con characterizations to judge. There are these glimpses into other stories that could have been longer stories or that could still be longer stories somewhere but instead are encapsulated in few enough words that you can hold them in your hands. LeVar Burton has impeccable taste. The NPR Concierge was spot on. This is a fantastic collection. But don’t take my word for it.

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